Chasing The Dragons – Part 2
New York City
Continued from yesterday …
It was dawn by the time I reached the Faro train station. I sat on a wooden bench waiting for the next train to Lisbon in front of a taxi stand. From where I sat I was looking through the cab, the driver snoozing, rather enjoying the refraction of sunlight on the windshield. There was a tavern and a bank across the avenue. The train was scheduled for nine fifteen. The tavern opened around six and around seven an armored car pulled up in front of the bank. A guard brandishing an automatic rifle stood in watch as two burly types unloaded stacks of currency in large plastic bags onto wooden pallets. Euros. The new European currency was due to go into circulation in Portugal on the second of January. Pound after pound of Euros were hauled into the bank under the watchful eye of a sullen Centurion and a tarnished vagabond. Paradise by the dashboard lights. That would have been around the same time the Brinks guys hauled the gold from underneath the Towers. The taxi driver woke up, took off, and I took a “tracado” in the tavern, red wine with OJ, and boarded that train north when it finally arrived, only thirty minutes late.
Cais do Sodre is a murky, rather dangerous neighborhood of Lisbon. Many are. It is a poor place, populated mostly by junkies, petty thieves, dope dealers and, of course, whores. There are several bars along the strip, “Texas”, “Viking”, “Rotterdam” etc. It is a good idea to keep walking. If you pause, one of the ladies will hit you up for a smoke or anything at all they can get. Most all are junkies, many in very bad shape. Such human frailty can be revolting, especially the boils, but it is nothing if not deeply tragic. Not far from the docks, it had always been frequented by sailors and stevedores, now also the refugees from the former colonies Mozambique and Angola. Any man who could afford better would not come to Cais do Sodre. Except maybe me. I loath such places. But it was not the first time I had been there. They are grim, ugly. But they are real. They are not contrived. Here was Darkness. Deep, ugly darkness where all had been lost or surrendered or forsaken. Is there wisdom to be gained from peering in to such ugliness? I do not know. If so, it may not be worth knowing. When I am drunk I fear nothing. I should, perhaps. It was seemingly a fitting route for a lost soul, grimly poetic, a labyrinth of hopelessness, the Minotaur prowling with impunity, trolls lurking in the shadows. Theseus was not expected. But these pitiless trolls were, at least, honest in their dishonesty. That was as well as I could think of them. Loitering with intent under the overpass at the eastern entrance to the main drag are the lookouts—at the opposite entrance, the cops. Both groups are there in case of trouble and both are in the employ of the dealers and/or madams. Of the two, I would venture a guess that the cops are the more expensive.
I pretended not to hear the catcalls and kept on walking. I paused once. Sitting in a doorway was a guy who looked like a stevedore, bald, many intricate tattoos, maritime themes, powerful arms. He sat leaning against the door frame in his Manchester United jersey, soiled, whispering. In those gnarled arms he held a teddy bear. He was petting his teddy. He looked up at me. There was no malice in his eyes. One had to smile. ‘Just won ’em,’ he said, holding up the bear, ‘over at the Feira Popular.’ He seemed quite proud.
‘How?’ I asked.
‘You must be damn good. Those crooked barrels they use are hard to aim.’
‘Yes. Indeed … hey, you gotta smoke?’ I gave him two. He had his own matches.
I left Lucifer’s enclave via a twisting alley, onto the wide, well-lit avenue and made my way to the docks along the edge of the Tagus river. The Tagus is a mighty river, an estuary of the Atlantic, deep enough for tankers and tramp freighters. There were no ferries still running at that hour but there were several Trampers in dry dock. A Carnival Cruise liner was moored, Muzak and twitters coming from her upper decks. Off in the distance one could see the outline of the Salazar Bridge, now the ‘25th of April Bridge’, the change of name reflecting one of the very many political about-faces this ancient nation has seen, and across the Tagus on the shore of Almada stood the Christ King statue. A smaller version of the one in Rio, no less prominent, brightly lit, His arms spread wide as if in embrace with all humanity. A grand gesture, perhaps, in the face of such an absence of humanity.
Jutting out toward the darkness was a stone quay. It went off just above the murky waters lapping at its edges into the darkness. For no good reason I stepped down onto the flagstones and walked. It was rather slippery and in some spots dipped just under the waterline. It gave the impression of walking on water. I turned back when I heard a whistle from the shore behind me and only then realized how far out I was. The waters were black. I ignored whoever it was, whatever they wanted, and kept going, heading toward the indistinct point where the Tagus and the vast Atlantic converged. When I drew near the end of the quay I saw a small shadow. In the darkness it seemed to be a coil of rope, an anchor. When I reached the tip I saw it was a man. An old man, raggedy trousers, the thick, woolen fisherman shirt which the city of Nazare was famous for. Maybe he was one of the salty dogs who could predict the weather for an alm. No mean feat in a city where the inclement winters brought infamously unpredictable storms suddenly. An old and honorable role for an ancient fisherman when his strength had forsaken him. There was an empty bottle, two, of Sagres beer beside him. At his feet stood a seagull. Here was man who was selective in his resting place. Perhaps not. But the seagull did not seem to mind. It was the bird’s perch, no doubt, and he stood as if at attention, a volunteer sentry for a weary old fisherman.
I had sought and found the End of the Line. Someone was already there. I turned and headed back toward the shore and the light of Lisbon.
Bio: MC Alves is a freelance writer. A former journalist, he is a contributor to various publications and author of a collection of short fiction. He has also written two books on Information Technology and is currently working on a novel. He lives in New York City.